Health food used to be depressing and bland. Now it’s delicious and decadent! (In theory.) Notes from an excursion into the heart of healthness.
Health isn’t just a state of feeling good. Health is something you can eat! And in recent years, there’s been an explosion of healthy eateries throughout the valley. Some offer meatless alternatives to mainstream fast food. Others remix all-natural smoothies into guilt-free treats you can plausibly eat for lunch. And still other outlets have evolved from mere eateries into nothing less than complete lifestyle hubs for the wellness-obsessed.
But is the food actually good? Scott and I applied our mouths to the task of finding out. Our standards are high. Scott is a meat-lover with a priestly devotion to bacon. I have a raging sweet tooth, which is why my actual teeth are so sad and janky. Here are notes from our tastings.
The place: Vege-Way, a meatless hamburger joint that substitutes grain patties for the typical flesh slabs of the corporate clownburger McDeath industrial complex. It’s a clean, spare, fast-food restaurant, with a few scrumply juggaloids wandering in from the new marijuana dispensary next door. Promising!
Andrew: I ordered the “chicken” sandwich with sweet potato fries. Let’s get this out of the way: You won’t have some transportively deceptive chicken-like experience. It’s definitely a vegetal patty — crispy and moist in the right places — with earthy and nutty notes. That said, in fast-food sandwich totality, with bun, lettuce, tomato and secret spicy yellow sauce, it does have an overarching guilty stoner umami crunch that tickles my reptilian brain. As a meat eater, I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way for this, but I imagine a lot of cravey-ass smoked-out vegans would.
Scott: For me, “vegan burger” presents a philosophical paradox, a clash of incompatible ways of knowing the world, like communism vs. democracy or Adam West Batman vs. Christian Bale Batman. Vege-Way’s vegan double burger is not, cannot be a burger, yet it gamely represents as one. And for that first bite, as my brain sorts out the dissonance between expectation and reality, the taste is like a trust fall where the other guy half-catches you: close enough. The patty has sufficient density, and the preparation just enough (open finger quotes) char (close finger quotes), to uphold the fiction. But by the second bite, the pretense of burgerness collapses into a mouth-feel of grainy mushiness and a flavor that’s all gatherer, no hunter. But here’s the thing. If you just don’t think of this as a burger qua burger, and dial your anticipation accordingly, you can enjoy it as a pleasant sandwich free of meat’s nutritional and ethical downsides. Which is what I do.
(7790 S. Jones Blvd., 702-614-3380, vegewaylv.com)
The place: Bowlology, a purveyor of an exciting new food form called “smoothie bowls.” Is the smoothie bowl a meal? Is it dessert? And why does everyone here look like extras in a Nicholas Sparks movie about achingly photogenic young swimmers in love? Let’s find out!
Scott: Açai or pitaya? “Not sure,” I reply. “I don’t know what pitaya is.” Dragonfruit, the counter girl explains. Ah! “I’ll take that.” I don’t know what dragonfruit is, either, but it sounds groovier than açai as the smoothie base for my “Hula Bowl.” I mean, dragons are cool, right? Sadly, that’s the level of informed decision-making I bring to the task of healthy eating. Fortunately, I’ve bumbled into the right choice: a frozen compound of pitaya and other fruit, topped with an oompah band of berries, coconut, granola, and honey. It’s lively enough that my palate welcomes it as a treat, even as I feel the good health rampaging through my body. I have to endure three brain freezes for this realization, but I’m glad I do: These bowls just might liberate my taste buds from the processed-chocolate grip of Big Treat. Indeed, the only off-putting aspect of the experience was the semiotic indigestion caused by the word “Bowlology.”
Andrew: The gimmicky name and trendy ingredients such as açai made me skeptical, but my “PB Lover” — a smoothie topped with nuts, granola, chocolate and fruit — does a startling impression of a cryogenic evil-genius version of a pb&j. Let me emphasize! It’s not like they cheatily dumped a bunch of things on top of a smoothie to just sort of gladhand my sweet tooth into starstruck submission. I feel a conscious culinary intent here. I do wonder what the calorie count is; it’s not listed on the menu. I only ask because the sugar high made me talk in a falsetto for the rest of the afternoon. In other words: For all the natural ingredients, it’s still probably wise to think of the smoothie bowls at Bowlology as alt-ice cream vs. alt-salad.
Also, apropos of nothing: The canned pop hits oozing from the speakers are excruciatingly vague, like every song is a cover of a cover of a cover you can’t quite identify. I may have only noticed this, however, because the açai berries opened up new synaptic pathways to my aural lobes, or something.
(Multiple locations, bowlology.com)
The place: Whole Foods. Whole Foods is, first and foremost, an organic grocery store, but they also have a deli and salad bar. On this weekday lunch hour, the West Charleston location is abuzz with customers forestalling inevitable death through dubiously moralized consumerism. For our meal, we picked out some prepared dishes at the deli, plus a few off-the-shelf snacks.
Andrew: This California quinoa salad looks good, all promisingly fiesta-like with its bright niblets of mango and red pepper. But it’s so bland and pulpy. This reminds me of the olden days, when people used to whittle themselves little piles of sawdust for lunch, moistened with bitter crying. I’m also disappointed by this Tea Riot green tea. It tastes chemical and woody. I dunno, maybe the riot is against tasting good?
Scott: Okay, this spinach empanada, it’s like adequacy wrapped in competence. The good news? It doesn’t taste like a cliché of healthy food. The bad news? That makes it the highlight of today’s lunch. It has a decent heft and doughiness; if the universe conspires to plop another one directly in front of my mouth at some future mealtime, I’ll bite. As for my smoked mozzarella pasta salad, which I wanted to love and which has a saucy thickness I like but is otherwise flat, everything I have to say about it can be found on page 872 of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, under sufficient. To go with it, I picked up this bag of flax-seed crackers called Flackers, and they’re great — if you’re starving, and also a pigeon. Labeled “savory,” they’re more akin to artisanal cardboard and put the eww in umami. Not surprisingly produced by an outfit called Doctor in the Kitchen, Flackers have a punitive medicinal blandness, as if each bite is meant to remind you that bodily upkeep is a tedious but necessary responsibility. They taste like duty.
Andrew: Despite their menacing iridescent orange glow and rubbery texture, these quinoa-and-chicken balls are okayish; they taste like something they’d serve at a Super Bowl party in Purgatory. For dessert, I’m trying the Blueberry Chia Crunch. (Opens bag, huffs it.) Ooh! Smells like Boo-Berry — remember Boo-Berry cereal from your stoner days, Scott? (Bites into small blue mound-like puck.) Weird: Tastes like a fugitive suggestion of rumored blueberry flavor. Also, every chalky, pulpy thing I’ve eaten up to now has coated my teeth in a stubborn fur-like mulch, and I feel cheated, disappointed and still hungry. This trenchant unhappiness can only mean one thing: I’M OFFICIALLY HEALTHY!